SPOILERS for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and also for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
The Awakening is an interesting cultural artifact, a proto-feminist novel that was nearly lost. Written in the early 1900s, forgotten, then picked up again and lauded in the 1960s.
Since then it has been critiqued to death.
Seriously, my edition contains 100 pages of novel, and 200 pages of historical information and literary dissection.
I did not read those 200 pages, so maybe I’m going to say things that have already been said. But (blog post spoilers) since I do tie this back to speculative fiction, maybe I’ll say something new.
The author, Kate Chopin, was an up-and-coming American writer in the early 1900s. She was rich — not from writing, but from smart real estate investments — had five kids, liked to go out walking by herself (scandalous!), and for most of her life had no man. She grew up in a household full of widows, and then later lost her own husband.
At a time in history when women were more or less owned by their husbands, she was something special.
Then Chopin wrote The Awakening.
It’s the story Edna Pontellier, a New Orleans Creole woman who “awakens” to her own emotionality, and discovers that she hates her life. She does not love her husband, and has no interest in raising her own children.
Edna changes her life as best as she can within the constraints of early 1900s, New Orleans, white, upper class society. But she can find no solidarity. Her good friend Adele reminds her, “Oh think of your children!” And the man she loves, Robert, abandons Edna to spare them both the indignity of Edna’s otherwise inevitable divorce.
That’s not the end of the story, but I have a few thoughts to share before I get there.
The first is that this book is hilariously, offensively old fashioned. If this was popular in the ‘60s, no wonder feminism got off on the wrong foot with women of color! A tacit, Southern respect for the Confederacy pervades the novel. There are an impressive number of brown and black characters, but almost all are minimally described servants.
For example, Edna’s nanny appears at least half-a-dozen times, but is only ever known as “the quadroon”.
Edna’s reliance on visible but largely overlooked black people, while desiring her own freedom, creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance. I don’t know Chopin well enough to say if this is deliberate on her part or not. If she meant to say something about race, as well as sex and class, or if the statement made itself without her conscious effort.
The second is that the ending is inevitable within the framework and philosophies of straight fiction.
The ending, if you haven’t guessed, is that Edna kills herself.
It’s not out of the blue. Edna’s been emotionally unstable the whole time. (She does mask it well, but that’s easy when you have black people around to cook your meals, clean your house, and raise your children for you.) She keeps making impulsive decisions, feeling no responsibility toward anyone in her life until Adele and Robert remind her.
Think of your children. Think of your husband.
Due to the intersection of gender, class, and race, Edna can never have the life she wants, she can never be free. She’s screwed her life up too much already, having a husband and two children she doesn’t want. So she kills herself.
The ending fits the book. Chopin built up to it skillfully, with a familiarity that lets me know she had experienced great sadness herself. But suicide has its pros and cons as a literary device. It’s a hard ending. It’s over for Edna Pontellier, there is no Part II. There’s no imagining how she’ll get out of her situation.
Much has been felt, even learned, but no solution is presented.
I’m not being fair to Kate Chopin. This book was radical at the time, so much so that despite positive reviews from women, Chopin’s career ended with Edna’s death. And reading it helped a lot of people “awaken” to feminism.
But I’d like to compare it to my favorite suicide in fantasy; Dream, AKA Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic books.
Dream is the personification of the concept of dreams, an amalgam of REM cycles, whimsy, and hope. But at the beginning of the series he is imprisoned by a magic spell. He escapes 70 years later, but he never gets over it. Dream has been sullied.
He builds himself a trap, an inevitable end for himself where he must die. Sometimes he seems like he knows what he’s doing, sometimes he doesn’t, but in the end he dies.
And because this is fantasy, Dream is then reborn. He gets to try again.
Obviously, these are two very different stories, rendered in different media, with vastly different purposes and themes. They are both worthy of reading, and of serious consideration. And I like them both.
But I like Sandman better. I like that uptick of continuance and hope that so much of fantasy has. I like the struggle through symbolism towards life, and towards wellness.
I had a friend ask me one time why I was writing fantasy if I was so interested in the psychology of my characters, if I was so interested in gender and race. Well, I’ll tell you.
It’s because fiction ends with death, and that’s just where fantasy gets started.